Reinventing the MacBook Air

How does Apple reconceive the MacBook Air as the trendsetting laptop approaches its second anniversary? Some thoughts.

How will Apple redesign the ultraslim, seminal MacBook Air that launched dozens of me-too ultraportable laptops? Only Apple knows. But here are some gratuitous musings anyway.

Dell Latitude Z: a 16-inch laptop that's less than 0.8-inches thick and under five pounds.
Dell Latitude Z: a 16-inch laptop that's less than 0.8-inches thick and under five pounds. Dell

In a previous post , I said I wouldn't hazard any guesses on what Apple may do with the MacBook Air. And I won't. That doesn't stop me from looking at the most recent ultrathin laptop competition to see where Apple might be able to improve the design that turns two years old in January.

Enclosure: This will be a tough act to follow. The original design was good enough that Apple didn't change it for gen 2--aka Rev. B--of the Air. And the aluminum enclosure was a trendsetter, which all MacBook Pros (and other PC makers) eventually copied.

But that doesn't mean the Air is perfect. The razor-thin slab of aluminum provides little room for ports and connectors. (Apple's implementation is a flip-out set of USB, Mini DisplayPort, audio ports that retract back into the body.)

A design modification that the Dell Adamo uses (some say retrogressed to) was putting the ports on the back (behind the screen). This allows Dell to offer a fuller array of connectors.

Could Apple come out with a tablet version of the Air?
Could Apple come out with a tablet version of the Air? OLPC

Hewlett-Packard, for its part, went another route: it just made its Envy 13 slightly thicker (at 0.8 inches) than the Air, allowing a couple more connectors (a second USB port and an SD card slot). HP also molded the base of the Envy in magnesium, which makes it lighter, according to HP.

Then there's just-announced Dell Adamo XPS . This is even thinner than the MacBook Air and puts the CPU-complex-plus-circuit-board (aka motherboard) behind the screen, not underneath the keyboard--standard design practice for all laptops.

Sony Vaio X is a good example of how small and thin a premium laptop can be: it has an 11.1-inch screen.
Sony Vaio X is a good example of how small and thin a premium laptop can be: it has an 11.1-inch screen. Sony

Of course, there's the recurring rumor that Apple is looking at different materials to make it even lighter while maintaining its famous sturdiness. This could potentially be a combination of aluminum and something like carbon fiber. (Though, as stated above, HP claims that magnesium is the way to go.)

Other possibilities: make one model bigger (wider), a la the Dell Latitude Z, which offers a 16-inch 1600x900 WLED Display and at its thickest point is only 0.79 inches.

Or make it smaller. The Sony Vaio X is a great example of how light (1.6 pounds) and thin (0.55 inches) a premium laptop (technically it's a Netbook) can be.

Tablet? There is the remote possibility that a version of the Air becomes a tablet. And that would mean potentially a new enclosure and new silicon.

Graphics:. The second feature I'll touch on is graphics. A good graphics chip is tough to squeeze into ultrathin designs and this a major feature that set the Air apart from other slim designs, which use the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD.

The Dell Adamo added a bump at the back, providing more connectors than the Air
The Dell Adamo added a bump at the back, providing more connectors than the Air Dell

Apple, with the Rev. B of the Air, introduced Nvidia 9400M (aka, Ion) graphics silicon. This delivered decent performance and actually made the Air run cooler (I know, I've used both the original Air and Rev. B extensively.)

Let's be clear--the graphics on the original Air was poor. And the source of many gripes about the original design (which proves how important the graphics chip is now). Apple chose to go with Intel's X3100 graphics (they didn't have much a choice in 2007, when design decisions were made), which superheated the bottom of the unit when watching video. My Air would get so hot that I would have to place a large, flat picture book (in effect, a crude heat sink), between my lap and the MacBook Air.

So, what's next after the Nvidia graphics in Rev. B of the Air? There's Nvidia's upcoming Ion 2 graphics, which is still a mystery. I even queried an Nvidia executive about this recently in an interview, but mum's the word. I have confidence that Nvidia will deliver a solid solution that offers an optimal balance between power efficiency and performance.

Nvidia also offers the GeForce G 105M, which is used, for example, in the HP dm3t consumer ultrathin laptop.

My original MacBook Air (R) next to an HP 2510p business ultraportable.
My original MacBook Air (R) next to an HP 2510p business ultraportable. Brooke Crothers

Then there's the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330 graphics chip, which Advanced Micro Devices describes as a "thin and light mobile graphics processor...delivering unprecedented performance-per-watt...while watching Blu-ray movies." (The Blu-ray aspect may be overkill for an ultrathin, especially in the case of the Apple, which does not offer Blu-ray drives in its MacBook line.)

This ATI chip has already found its way into an HP ultrathin laptop .

I won't dive into processors here. Suffice to say that Intel continues to expand its variety of low-voltage (e.g., SL9600) and ultra-low-voltage processors (SU9600). Maybe more enticingly, Intel will bring out low-power versions of the Core i series of mobile processors next year. Probably sooner rather than later. This is likely what Apple is targeting for any major revamp of the Air.

Updated at 8:10 a.m. PST: adding tablet discussion.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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